Posted by: Aaron Lisec | February 14, 2013

Seeing the Elephant

On February 8, 1863, Private Edwin A. Loosley, 81st Illinois, wrote to his wife Ann from a camp near Memphis.  Having trained in Anna and Cairo, Illinois, during the previous summer and fall, the regiment had moved in stages from Cairo to Columbus, Kentucky, to Humboldt and La Grange, Tennessee.  Now they had orders to move in three days–rumor had it to Vicksburg.  Amid the bustle of preparations, Edwin confided his private worries to his wife.  “I expect for the first time to see the real elephant as we shall undoubtedly have a deal of fighting to do.”

Thure de Thulstrup, "The Battle of Shiloh," chromolithograph, 1888.  Louis Prang & Co., Boston.

Thure de Thulstrup, “The Battle of Shiloh,” chromolithograph, 1888. Louis Prang & Co., Boston.

In nineteenth-century America, “seeing the elephant” was slang for the penultimate experience, from the idea that once you saw an elephant at a circus or carnival, there wasn’t anything bigger to see.  In civilian life it was among other uses a euphemism for prostitution, as in a visit to a town’s red light district.  During the Civil War the phrase was widely used to describe a soldier’s initiation to combat.  See Joseph Allan Frank and George A. Reaves, Seeing the Elephant: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh (1989; reprinted 2003).

Edwin A. Loosley Papers, SCRC

Edwin A. Loosley Papers, SCRC

Loosley anticipated a big battle for Vicksburg.  “I have no doubt but we shall take the place soon after our regement gets there, and I can only hope to come out safe, and well, and if I do that I shall be lucky as tis said to be A very unhealthy place.  but if I fall either by sickness or bullets I shall want you to kindly remember me to my children and when they get big to let them know that I fell in A good cause, that I fell A sacrifice to the demon of Slavery, and teach them to hate Slavery, both for my sake and the sake of the country, as much as tis possible to hate any thing.”

As noted in an earlier post, “The Emancipation Proclamation at 150,” Loosley and the 81st saw heavy combat in a series of battles leading up to the surrender of Vicksburg.  His vivid descriptions in letters to Ann will feature in future posts and in an exhibit to mark the sesquicentennial of the siege.

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